Locked up for being poor: Can next Philly DA fix the bail mess?

Joshua Glenn was 16 and facing some serious charges – and but he was determined to fight them. Sent away to Philadelphia’s notorious 19th-Century-built House of Correction on charges including aggravated assault and attempted murder rap by a DA’s office that wanted to try Glenn as adult, the teenager believed in his innocence, rejecting a plea deal that might have sent him home, on probation.

Meanwhile, on the outside, things were happening. Some of Glenn’s classmates at De La Salle Vocational were earning their degrees. His father had been shot and killed when he was 8, and now his mom was struggling to raise his six siblings while on welfare. There was absolutely no way his poverty-stricken family could raise the $2,000 in cash bail that would have set him free while the charges were hanging over his head.

Eventually, according to Glenn, prosecutors dropped all charges for a lack of evidence. He was finally free to go home – after spending a year and a half in the Philadelphia jail. He’d surrendered 18 months of young life not because he was guilty -- but because he was poor. And his case was hardly unusual; the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that – in an era of mass incarceration – as many as six of 10 people behind bars are awaiting trial, presumed innocent yet deprived of liberty.

A dozen years later, Glenn has turned his life around, and as a leader of the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment project fighting to keep Philadelphia teens out of jail, he speaks out against the city’s bail practices every chance that he gets. With the city poised to elect a new district attorney who’ll replace the disgraced incumbent Seth Williams in January, and with a new climate of support for more radical criminal-justice reforms, some advocates believe that for the first time there’s a real chance to abolish cash bail in America’s fifth-largest city.

With seven of the eight DA candidates facing off in a May 16 Democratic primary, three of those candidates – Joe Kahn, Lawrence Krasner, and Michael Untermeyer – have promised to work to completely eliminate cash bail in the city, and most of the other candidates support lesser varieties of bail reform, such as dropping the practice for lower-level non-violent crimes.

To many advocates of criminal justice reform, the move seems like a no-brainer. For one thing, it would save Philadelphia taxpayers millions of dollars; officials say that as many of half of the 6,600 people now locked up in the city’s jails are there because they're awaiting trial and unable to afford cash bail. In many cases, advocates say, the inmates could gain their freedom for as little as $500 or less – but in the city with America’s highest rate of deep poverty, the figure might as well be a million dollars.

“It’s just such an obvious thing -- the question of whether someone is a danger to the community has nothing to do with how much money they have,” said Patrick J. Egan, a partner in the Fox Rothschild law firm who moderated a Philadelphia forum last week on ending cash bail. “Poor folks stay in jail and rich folks don’t.”

The reason that bail exists, of course, is that judges and prosecutors once saw the risk of forfeiting that bail bond as the best and maybe the only way to guarantee that criminal suspects don’t fly the coop.  But the experience in Washington, D.C., which became a pioneer after it moved to eliminate cash bail at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the early 1990s, suggests the opposite. Criminal defendants there are screened for potential flight risk and most are set free with some condition – check-ins, GPS monitoring, etc.; some 90 percent then remain arrest-free and show up for their court date.

In cities such as Philadelphia where the traditional cash-bail regime is still in place, the incarceration cost to taxpayers is arguably dwarfed by the social costs to low-income communities of mass incarceration. For one thing, studies have shown that defendants who are locked up are also more likely to be convicted, and that they also have higher rates of recidivism than those who are freed before trial. Inmates who can’t afford to make bail lose jobs or educational opportunities while they’re behind bars, and those with tenuous living situations may be homeless when they finally get out.

As for Joshua Glenn, his experience in the House of Correction a dozen years ago was a nightmare but also, oddly, a turning point. “I was scared, but then I turned to God,” he told me, and the now-28-year-old – who works as a home health aide when he’s not crusading for justice reform – credits religion with helping him turn things around. But he says many of the inmates he met who didn’t share his faith “were bound to get in trouble.”     

So what’s blocking reform? Egan suggests one problem is confusion over how to get it done. “The chain of command isn’t clear,” he said, noting that recent moves to end cash bail in New Jersey and Maryland were driven by the courts. In Philadelphia, he said, court administrators would have to work with the DA’s office which – as Williams’ fairly feeble reform record suggests – tends toward resisting major changes.

Reuben Jones -- formerly incarcerated, now a criminal-justice reform advocate through a group called Frontline Dads -- agreed that inertia is the biggest problem in a city that’s long had a convictions-at-all-costs culture.  “I think it’s just the culture of Philadelphia criminal justice,” he bemoaned. Jones and other activists agree that the city has made progress in reducing its jail population – helped by a $3.6 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, aided by efforts to divert more drug arrestees into treatment – but there’s a long way to go.

There’s no reason why Philadelphia’s next district attorney can’t go big and go bold on bail reform. A repeat of the Williams era – with timid reforms dragged down by veteran prosecutors, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the other forces of decrepit business as usual – would just bring another spin of the wheel for Philadelphia’s unending cycle of poverty.

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